• That they can point to the parts of their body as you name them (nose, mouth, bottom etc). This isn’t quite as vital as some of the others, but is quite important so that you can help them to understand the process, especially if they have fear and issues around using the potty. If you think they are a little behind on this get some of their favourite shows about the body and do a bit of intensive cramming together.
• That they have the ability to be still, to occupy themselves with a book or a game for at least ten minutes. Though this sounds simple, anyone who has a toddler knows that keeping them still and occupied for any length of time is tough, but it really is a key skill in this process – toddlers spend a lot of time sitting on a potty waiting for things to happen when they do this, so being able to sit still, to avoid spills and mess; and to keep themselves busy without someone else keeping them entertained is vital.
• That your gorgeous little baby knows what it is that Mummy and Daddy do on the toilet. If your child has no awareness of what the toilet is for they will not understand why they need to learn how to us it. If they haven’t seen Mummy and Daddy using it, or have been shielded from what happens in their diapers this could be tough for them to grasp. Make sure you use the preparation phase detailed here to make sure they get this awareness before you start.
• That they can communicate their needs either verbally or non-verbally (for example being thirsty, and wanting a juice, or being tired and needing a nap). If your child can tell you that they need to go it is going to save you a lot of cleaning up, so if your child cannot yet tell you their needs, don’t start this process. Put the book down, and wait until they can.
• That they can pull up, or down their own clothes. I have already stressed the need to be happy helping you, or being able to completely dress and undress, but this is the minimum requirement!
• That they are content, even excited to be on the toilet or potty! If they are fearful or concerned about it, then this is not the time to start. Stop all the talk about it, but occasionally make sure they come to the bathroom with you, and if they ask questions about the potty or the toilet then answer them. Let your child take the lead – never, ever force the issue or you will only end up with a stubborn and unhappy child, and anxiety and frustration for you as a parent. Nobody needs that, so please, wait until you are both ready.
Though it is important that all of these signs are in place when you start to potty train, the last one is really very crucial – if a child cannot even be bribed with a small treat, then they aren’t ready. Save yourself a lot of tantrums and tears and wait a bit longer – even if all the other signs and signals have been met successfully.
If you have a child who is a little stubborn and their ability to follow instructions is the bit that is holding you back from starting, or they are reluctant to help with dressing, try using a sticker chart for a few weeks. Choose two or three tasks that you would like them to participate in, for example getting dressed, washing their hands and drying them carefully, and eating their meals without help. Each time they actively participate and get involved in these tasks – and have done what you have asked of them – they get a sticker or star to put on their chart.
Gina Ford recommends using an X in the boxes on the chart and then covering these with the stickers, but I personally don’t like the negative connotations of this – I prefer a heart or circle or other shape that can be covered by the sticker when they are successful. No child needs the pressure of a chart full of crosses making them feel bad from the outset. This whole process requires confidence and lots of reassurance so please make sure you are using positive reinforcement techniques at all times. Nagging, and yelling simply won’t help – making your child feel guilty or bad because they are struggling will backfire on you and drag this out much longer than necessary.
If they get four stickers in a day, then they get a small reward. Most child care experts suggest using a small food treat, but I can tell you that as a therapist I spend an awful lot of my time now working with people who have very disordered eating patterns because food has been used as a reward throughout their lives so I think this is a dangerous precedent to set – especially in such a young child. What we learn in the first five years of our lives can be extremely difficult to re-programme, as it becomes almost hard-wired into us. Get some cheap toys, or books – thrift, pound-shop/dollar stores and charity shops are often great for these. You can even try the promise of a favourite bedtime story and if they get four stars every day for an entire week, then maybe a larger reward of a wanted DVD or larger toy – maybe if they reach their targets for a couple of weeks you can plan a super family outing somewhere like the zoo or a local theme park.
Usually this type of approach will help to build your child’s desire to want to be helpful, making them more confident and happier to undertake tasks on their own. The key is for you to remain calm and patient – do not scold if they don’t manage it, but give lots and lots of love and praise when they do what you ask them to. Bribery, when used correctly for your child’s benefit, can be a very useful tool!